Miles Raymer
October 29, 2014 AT 07:23 PM EDT

On the surface, T-Pain may seem like an exceedingly odd choice for one of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts, not only because the series usually focuses on rootsy singer-songwriters and indie rockers, but because his Auto-Tune-drenched signature sound seems wildly incompatible with the type of stripped-down intimacy the whole premise is founded on. But two things a lot of people don’t realize about T-Pain are that 1. behind the top hats and stripper lyrics he’s actually an incredibly talented musician, and 2. perhaps even more surprisingly, behind all that Auto-Tune he’s a phenomenally talented singer.

For his NPR gig, he plays three songs—his 2007 hit “Buy U A Drank (Shawty Snappin’)” and two more recent songs, “Up Down (Do This All Day)” and “Drankin’ Patna”—backed up by a nothing more than a keyboardist (or, sorry, pianist) named Toro. In between songs, T-Pain’s as disarmingly casual and funny as ever, making self-deprecating jokes about his Auto-Tune habits (one of his favorite comedic topics). But when he sings, it’s as good as Tiny Desk has ever been.

Framed by delicate electric piano and subtle synth strings, his performance draws out the poignancy that’s always lurked within his songs, which are ostensibly just about partying but under the surface deal with using hedonism as a form of emotional self-defense.

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